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Worldwide, over the last three decades, there has been an increasing investment in the education field by profit-oriented private actors. This process of education privatisation, a global trend of a varying intensity according to countries’ specific contexts, has taken several forms: the direct provision of education by private providers, the reform of state education systems along management rules borrowed from the private sector or the growing involvement of private consultancy companies in education policy design or school management. Specifically, advocates of education privatisation argue that the cause of ‘access to quality education’ in developing and emerging countries calls for an expansion of private provision through ‘low-fee private schools for the poor’: private provision would be intrinsically superior in meeting the state’s commitment to provide quality education for all.

While access to basic education has greatly improved in South Africa since the end of Apartheid, educational performance has remained poor. Additionally, access to quality education remains unequally distributed, along social, racial and spatial lines. Quality has turned into the major site of social differentiation through education. In comparison with other emerging countries such as Brazil or India, private schools (or ‘independent schools’), in South Africa, have so far catered for a small share of learners. Nevertheless, the number of private schools is growing rapidly and formal chains of self-identified low-fee private schools are emerging, Pearson – the world leading publishing and media multinational – has decided to develop its presence on the South African education market, which also benefits from national public funding via investments by the Public Investment Corporation (one of its main shareholders being the Government Employees Pension Fund). The present research intends to examine low-fee private education provision in South Africa and the repercussions of these schooling models for educational equality.

Researchers: Sonia Languille and Salim Vally